Laurels and Hardy: A Review of Margot Livesey’s The Flight of Gemma Hardy…

I get some interesting and varied things sent to Scots Whay Hae!, and believe me, I’m grateful for each and every one. If you send something and it doesn’t get reviewed then that’s because the rule of thumb is if it’s not for me then I’m not going to pan it for the sake of it. Scots Whay Hae! is a celebration of the things that make my day and I need to be able to look each and every one of you in the virtual eye and be able to say that a review is a true reflection of how I, and the other folk who occasionally write on these pages, feel about a book, film or piece of music. But I like to think that everything is given a fair hearing as, well, it’d be rude not to, and sometimes you do get a pleasant surprise.

Scots born writer Margot Livesey’s The Flight of Gemma Hardy was sent to me a couple of month’s ago, and was described as a re-imagining of Jane Eyre set in mid-20th century Scotland. The only work of the Bronte sisters I have ever read was Emily’s Wuthering Heights in my mid-teens; a result of a Kate Bush fixation that I’ve never quite got over. Victorian literature on the whole is a sad gap in my knowledge, with the exception of R.L Stevenson and Dickens. The blurb on the cover of The Flight of Gemma Hardy makes such a big deal of the influence of Charlotte Bronte’s novel I was worried my lack of knowledge would be a barrier to any enjoyment, and after the first chapter I had convinced myself this wasn’t for me.

However, what kept me reading on was Livesey’s lean use of language, and an engaging central character whose side you are on from the first few pages.  Gemma Hardy is a classic literary creation, one that is at once familiar and yet determinedly individual. The book is split into five parts, but the story is seamless as Gemma is compelled to move from place to place trying to find somewhere she can call home, and all the time suspecting she was taken from her true home, as well as her family, at a young age. Her relationships with others are complex and perhaps unsurprising, looking for fraternal figures that never quite live up to her expectations (and how could they). There are father, mother, sister and brother substitutes along the way, but since she has no real idea of who she is (including her real name), then she cannot hope to fully engage with others.

Margot Livesey was raised in the boy’s school her father taught, and her mother nursed, at in the Scottish Highlands, and this upbringing has obviously fed into The Flight of Gemma Hardy. Gemma is always a girl aside from those around her, no matter what lengths she goes too to fit in. She is the cuckoo in the nest who is searching for a home, with no real idea of where to start her odyssey. It is also the story of Gemma’s odd path to adulthood, one which starts far too young, and although Gemma’s upbringing is unusual, Livesey captures all the trauma’s, tribulations and self doubt that accompanies adolescence and beyond. She also has another aspect of her writing that brings a reader and a book together; Gemma visits recognisable, real, places, and Livesey manages to give the book a believable sense of place no matter where Gemma journeys. I have never been to Orkney yet I feel I could take you to the church in Kirkwall, and around the Sinclair home. Such an ability always lends a truth to any story, and is rarer than you may think.

The most evocative chapters are those set on Orkney, where Gemma works as an au pair to the troubled Sinclair family. Here more secrets and lies are uncovered as she comes so close to grasping an elusive, and apparently idyllic, happiness, only to have it ripped from her as the truth unfolds. Throughout the book the possibility of a contented existence is snatched from Gemma just when it seems attainable, something I’m assured is a theme of British Victorian fiction. The protagonist must be punished to earn any redemption that may occur. As I mentioned above, I can’t comment on any Bronte comparisons, but there is certainly a Dickensian feel to the early chapters as Gemma is looked after by her unsympathetic aunt, and then sent away to work as well as be schooled. Perhaps more surprisingly, there are also similarities to Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s A Scot’s Quair Trilogy, although not as dark, in that there is a headstrong, intelligent and engaging central character who has to make sacrifices, whose life changes as she moves around Scotland, and who feels a close connection with the land. The major difference between Gibbon’s Chris Guthrie and  Gemma is that the latter is taken from her land at a young age, and feels the loss keenly.
Here is a great piece of video of Margot Livesey reading from The Flight of Gemma Hardy, and answering questions:

I’m glad I hadn’t read Jane Eyre before reading The Flight of Gemma Hardy as this is a book that stands easily on its own. Livesey has a fantastic way with a descriptive sentence, managing to convey in just a few words what other writers would labour over a  paragraph or two to achieve the same. What starts out as a novel which you may feel you have read before has moments of real poignancy and emotion. But don’t just take my word for it. Since I’ve finished the book I have discovered that some folk called Alice Sebold, Amy Bloom and Audrey Niffenegger are advocates of Livesey’s work. I’m calling her one of the US’s best kept secrets, if only because I hadn’t heard of her before now. If you know someone who hasn’t read a modern novel for a while because ‘there’s too much swearing/sex/existential angst/heroin’ involved, then I would suggest that The Flight of Gemma Hardy may be the way to bring them back to the fold, before introducing them to the hard stuff. I was surprised to enjoy this novel as much as I did, but then I recognise that’s probably down to my own pride and prejudices. The Flight of Gemma Hardy is simply a pleasure to read, and I’d forgotten how rewarding that can be.

You can learn more about Margot Livesey by going to her website margotlivesey.com.

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